Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Work: Captain America and the Red Skull

I'll admit it, I have been pretty ambivalent about the Captain America character for a lot of years, especially when he's been divorced from politics, which isn't terribly appropriate for a character created by two Jews who was punching out Hitler before the United States declared war upon Japan and Germany. The character, supposedly a representative of "American Ideals" (and I put the quotes around that phrase for a reason), is not only steeped in the current political climate, but also in your own personal version of what those "Ideals" mean.

N one has actually excited me about the character since Steve Englehart had his Cap watch Nixon commit suicide pretty much on camera back in 1973 (wish fulfillment for that generation). And all that being said, Brubaker has absolutely made the character relevant and interesting with his run of Cap, currently collected in the the Winter Soldier trades, as well as the follow ups (which I've not finished reading yet). Which is why I found myself putting together a Cap piece for the local comic shop that I go to: Blue Moon Comics in Novato, CA.

And for someone who actually found the Red Skull scary when Kirby drew him, that craggy brow, the madman mouth, for someone who didn't seem to see through his mania that activating the next generation of the Sleeper probably wasn't in his best interests long term, the Skull is pure hate masquerading as a reasonable villian, which makes him all the worse. Doom thinks that he's a reasonable dictator, rationalizing himself as a positive force in Latveria, but the Skull is pure hate, pure evil, pure calculating evil. Brubaker recognizes this, and makes the best addition to the canon that we've seen in 30 years: that those who use the Cosmic Cube do so at their own risk: the Cube never promises happiness, never delivers either. The Cube is pure Genie of the Lamp without Robin Williams, it will always bring the worse of endings to user. The motto, that Kirby may have never intended: Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

Thanos at least had an abstract reason for obtaining the Cube: to become a God. But the Skull is pure meglomania. You can't reason with him, you can't logic your way around him, you simply are stuck with a human that would never deny the holocaust, but would rejoice in the genecide of 6 million humans, and would simply fret that they didn't finish the job.

Captain America rides a thin line between the unwavering patriotism of idealism and realism, which definitely makes him a victim of the current writer's biases. If you 're in tune with that writer, then you'll enjoy his take on the character: i.e. he'll represent your America. There is the America that wants to invade Iraq, and his no qualms about being there, and then there is the America that thinks that invading Iraq is like watching japan bomb Pearl Harbor and deciding the invade Spain: it simply makes no sense. My Captain America would never have to worry about hanging chad, and would never have seen the logic of going to Iraq. Brubaker has made his Captain America the idealist on the tightrope: he understands the politics that exist, he's not stupid, but occasionaly he wants to do thing the old fashioned way: by force, by moral imperative, by his moral imperative. Steve Rogers would have no problem acknowledging this truth: history is written by the winners. The Cap in the main book, as well as the one in the Ultimates, would not have a problem with this: both of them want, expect, to be the winners.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics

Mark's book, which many of us in comicbookland have been waiting for, has been delayed, as mentioned here on Mark's site:
Unfortunately, it looks like Kirby: King of Comics, my book on Jack Kirby, will not be out in time for either con. We're still finding new treasures to include and it's now scheduled to come out in February of '08...I think. However, I expect to be signing it at Wondercon in San Francisco at the end of that month and I've tentatively accepted invites to a half-dozen other conventions next year. So I'll be around.
Link provided, although there is no more info that I've quoted here.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Praise Of: Paul Gulacy and Master of Kung Fu

Occasional Superheroine has this post up as her start of Paul Gulacy week. I'm excerpting a bit here that is one of those quotes that certainly sums things up:
One can only imagine the reaction a kid had to a comic book as kinetically wild and relatively exotic as "The Master of Kung Fu" in the early 1970s. It certainly had an impression on a young Quentin Tarantino, who has been quoted as saying that the title was his favorite.
Valerie, I was that kid, and found myself poring over the Fight Without Pity and the Murder Agency, stunned by the choreography and violence and cinematic beauty of Shang and Shen, awed by the beauty of Leiko Wu, and overwhelmed, to this day, by what Doug and Paul were able to do in a monthly Marvel comic.

Paul forever raised the stakes on the subtlety of character interaction and he had a writer that didn't pull any punches either, giving him some real, true emotion. Do we feel the betrayal of Leiko's feelings in issue #40 when Shang innocently breaks her heart by not realizing that she is in love with him? Or is there a more fully realized death (that has stuck) than Larner's sacrifice in #49, visions of his dead wife around him?

The 12 issue run from Master of Kung Fu #38 to 50, barring #41 which is a fill-in, is a remarkable run from 1976, a literate, adult, kung fu and espionage thriller certainly better than anything the Bond franchise was putting. Doug's plotting was matched by Paul's pencils, and he gave his stories a gravitas because he could pull off the subtle character interaction that made the series. In another artist's hands (and you only have to read issue #41 to see how the series could have looked), we would have lost most if not all of what made the book unique.

Accused early on of being a Steranko clone, Paul certainly wore his influence on his sleeve, but there is nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, Jim went on to become a great designer, but Paul became the greater illustrator. In defense of this, I'll point out the two issues where Paul inked himself, Master of Kung Fu #29 and #40, and the subtlety introduced in the reflected light and shadows of #40 is a quantum leap over the earlier issue. And #29 still rocks to this day with one of the great comic fights of all time between Razorfist and Shang Chi and some deliciously deep and subtle shadows in an issue that would carry three parallel plotlines, a rather ambitious storytelling devise, in the same issue. But issue #40 is brilliant.

Paul went through any number of inkers back in those days; a scheduling issue perhaps? Something, actually, that i've never thought to ask him about. Dan Adkins, Pablo Marcos, Jack Abel, Tom Sutton and, most forgettably, Vinnie Colletta for part of issue #50, contributed to the book. For my money, Paul was best served by Adkins and Marcos. I know that Paul feels that Adkins did the best work on his pencils back then, but I really enjoyed the energy that Pablo brought with his brush work to art. Paul's work is so exacting that it has the potential to stiffen up when traced over, and so I modeled my own inking over him along the line of Marcos and Adkins.

(I finally met Pablo just a year or so ago, and was overjoyed to have the chance to tell him how much I enjoyed his work. I'm not sure that it meant as much to his as it did to me, but I pulled out a stack of Batman work over Gulacy that I had done to show him. His wife, at least, humored me and said that she saw echoes of his style in my brush work. I commissioned an expensive Living Zombie sketch that was really an excuse to give Pablo some money to thank him for his work. Of course, he kicked out an amazing Zombie sketch that I will always have.)

Paul, as you can see from the artwork scanned, has been well and interestingly served by his inkers over the years. I had the pleasure of working over Paul on a number of series, from The Grackle, Eternal Warrior and Turok/Timewalker at Acclaim to Batman: Outlaws over at DC Comics. His work on that Batman series was exceptional, as these scans from my originals show. I'll leave it to the gentle reader to decide how close to the Adkins/Marcos ideal I really hit, but I spent a hell of a lot of sleepless nights trying to get close.

I just upset that I didn't get asked to contribute to the Gulacy book that Vanguard put out. They certainly scanned in enough of my inks for the book.

Panels: Detail from Master of Kung Fu #40, inks by Gulacy; uninked pencils from The Grackle #2; Marcos inks on
Master of Kung Fu #49; Yoakum inks from the final page of Batman: Outlaws #1

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kirby on the Lower East Side: RAB's post

One of the joys of having a diverse number of other blogs to read, is the ability to run across a geat post covering something that I would certainly have missed since I no longer, sadly, live in New York City. However, i certainly would have loved to have been there. RAB has a great post titled Kirby in the Park that you must read not just for the fact that its a great story, but because he has some great observations on Jack's particular place in the popular culture at large, as opposed the comic geek culture at large., particularly in New York.

That dovetails with my own post on the dinner after Jack's death, that the Defiant crew held after a New York convention over on 8th Ave. Have a read if you missed it the first time. Its one of my favorite stories of all time. Jack was one of them, a true New Yorker at heart, soul and upbringing, and, finally, the rest of the country is slowly but surely getting to realize what a giant he was in his imagination and the effect he had on the 20th Century through pop culture.

Great great post RAB. Wish that I could have stopped by.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Marvel's Kirby Covers: the editor's speak

Tom Breevort has an interesting collection of Kirby's covers over at and makes a number of small but interesting comments on each cover as you scroll down.

Interestingly enough we get to see the design sense of Kirby down through the ages, ones that likes a certain number of motifs and layouts, and reuses them many times. Obviously Kirby relied on a short hand in his work, similar figures, similar layouts, and it is this shorthand that most people draw when they do a kirby homage or parody, but it was a shorthand that he created over all those years of work.

Kirby's covers were very often masterpieces of having more than one level to them, so that even the most static told a story, or the teaser of a story, that made you want to decide to pick the book up. Many of the same static poses used today on covers are simply that, static, without life or energy. I sometimes wonder that artists haven't figured out that you can use story elements as compositional devices that will give you an exciting cover, a good pin-up piece, and something to grab the reader's eye. Is this truly brain surgery?

It is interesting to note that many of the Kirby covers lean left, and I wonder if this is because, as many folks have mentioned, that Jack would start at the left corner of the cover and and work his way right? Maybe he just thought out the cool elements and started over there and went further right. Perhaps it was because he knew, knew, that Stan was going to put a hyperbolic caption somewhere on the cover, and he had to leave some negative area for the lettering.

Perhaps we should ahve a Jack Kirby Collector style article with all the rejected covers that he did, alongside the ones that ran, so we could try to get a handle on the rejected material as well. That might prove interesting.

The Shooter Story: Beginning, Middle and End

Just a week or two after I make the comment on Jim Shooter's assertion that comic book storytelling should be done a certain way because "Its always someone's first comic." then this quyote shows up on the Comic Journal's Journalista site (as well as the Comic Book Guy site) :
"The art in comics is generally better than ever, the writing is often clever and glib, but in spite of that, far too many comics are utterly unreadable. Even hardcore fans find many comics daunting to follow! The craft of storytelling is all but lost. A who's who of industry big shots have privately agreed with me when we've discussed exactly this subject, but it's a tough problem to fix, given the often huge egos of the creators, general creative anarchy and lack of trained editorial people".

And he's right. I'm not going to argue with him on the main part of his message. However, I will make the case that there were plenty of hard as hell to follow '70's comics as well, when we had exceptionally talented editors and writers like Marv Wolfman overseeing the biz. The quextion is, what is a readable comic? Isn't a comic that a 7 year old can understand different from a comic that a 25 year old can understand? How about a literate, educatated woman of 38 who simply hasn't grown up with comic?

My focus group on comics generally comprises my almost-7 year old daughter, who is a voracious reader, and my wife, with a Masters in Journalism, who didn't grow up in a comic book world like many of us did. I keep a spinner rack in the TV room at home loaded with everything from '60's Marvel to Dodson's Wonder Woman and Cooke's New Frontier. And I've found poor storytelling in every era, regardless of editor, but obviously, different things jumped out at the 7 year old versus the 38 year old.

The panel to panel transitions on the modern Wonder Woman comic are clearer to the 7 year old than some of the transitions in the 60's and '70's, with their greater degree of story compression, as they depend on the captions to make certain elements of the story clear. Not fully understanding the vocabulary, she needs a greater degree of visual communication to make this work, and I'm not certain that Jim allow this degree of latitude with most of his artists. Certainly, Marvel in the 80's had the superstars who could experiment (it seemed like every issue Moon Knight was a Sienkiewicz experiment) regardless of the failure rate, and everyone else, who were ruled by an iron editorial hand. Perhaps if there is someone to who helped create the superstar system, it may have been Jim. Miller got to do what he wanted. Daredevil was either Frank's or Rogers, and as we saw, editorial went with Frank. As many times as I've seen Frank interviewed on the subject, I'm not sure I've ever run across a Roger McKenzie interview where he addresses it.

Having been around the comics for so long now, I see head editors that were editorial assistants or interns when i was inking books 10 years ago. If there is anything that comics doesn't have, its any sort of organized training system that addresses the twin disciplines that our medium encompasses, and that may be a huge failing point with comics direction. Some editors become traffic directors simply, some stamp their view point so strongly on the books that they may as well be a modern Mort Weisinger. Many fall in the middle, caught and pulled in many different directions, by the prevailing marketing conditions, the overall corporate direction, the whims of the writer or artist, the latest company crossover (Counting Down to the Crisis on Infinite Hulks), the modern editor might long for days of simply getting the writer and artist on the same page and turning out a nice monthly book. It can't be easy.

It will be fascinating to see if Jim's Legion harkens back to the '60's DC, '70's Marvel or 90's Defiant. Especially with editorial changes that pretty much everyone in comics is predicting will happen to at the DC offices.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Comic Shop Without Comics

Just a quick link out to ICv2's Steve Bennett, whose column Confessions of a Comic Book Guy--Does The Name Slappy Freelance Ring A Bell? continues to make the case for trades that I've been harping on for a while now. Of course, as I'm not a comics retailer, it is all rather murky and hypothosis based, so its nice to read that its working for someone!

To whit - the trade is simply a better format to induce adults to actually pick the damn things up... whether Maus, Watchmen, Persepolis, The Salon or 300. If it reads like a book, and looks like a book, its a book, not a pamphlet.

Monday, September 03, 2007

If Its Always Someone's First Comic, Couldn't It Just As Easily Be Their Last?

There is a popular thought process that Jim Shooter was the perfect cheerleader for: the notion that the comic must be basic enough for anyone to read, after all, "Any comic could be someone's first comic." An attitude that has been championed by more than a few people in the business. Recently, however, I've had reason to rethink the old canard, and I wanted to put this out to you, blogdom assembled.

The notion that any particular comic could be someone's first issue, and thus would need not only a recap, but a degree of "dumbing down" on the storytelling side so that the visual language of the comic would not be an impedement to understanding this month's story. Unfortunately, over the last couple decades, what we've seen are a far greater number of comics that become the last issues rather than the first issues. comics have been losing numbers in droves, so making the point that we have to potentially sacrifice the complexity of story or storytelling so as not to drive away a potential new reader, may well be moving us in the wrong direction. We may have been actively pushing away the reader who is constantly looking for something to grow with them.

It does make sense, for instance, to keep the "every issue a first issue rule" when you look at the industry demographic/marketing plan through the 1940s to 1960s: your comics were targeted towards the same age range, so instead of moving upwards with a person's age, you had to hope to replace the same number of readers that "age out" with a similar number that grow into reading your books. Already there are flaws with the system, when you look at birth statistics during the baby boomer years. Without new product to go along with your new kids, you really have no hope of expanding your market.

And of course, this ties back to my In Search Of: The Elusive Bridge Comic" post that generated some interesting discussion, by trying to make the point that we come to different content within the same media over the years with different expectations. It would be interesting to say that "every movie is going to be someone's first movie", so we shouldn't do anything too advance in terms of flashing forward (The Shining) , flashing backward (Momento) or being too inventive with out camera angles (Seven) . There should be no room for ambiguity (Lost in Translation) lest we basically piss off the viewer so badly that they never return to view another movie again.

Hard to read that without laughing, isn't it?

So here's what we do: we don't continually tie the hands of creators. We have books that are not meant for the 6 year old, or the 12 year old, but for the adult. And we make sure that we have books at that 6 year old level that don't insult their intelligence. My almost 7 year old daughter is already telling me what the theme of a movie or book will be in the first third of the story. She understands subtext without knowing what that word means yet. We don't need to keep the material within the medium stupid.

Challenge me. Make me think. Keep me awake. Keep me buying. Or that next comic might be my last.